Most people haven’t heard of this extraordinary and influential American patriot. If they have, they often get him confused with his descendent, Robert E. Lee. Or, they may only know him from the musical, “1776,” where the character of Richard Henry Lee has a rousing solo song (done on horseback in the movie version). He is portrayed as a flamboyant, happy go lucky kind of guy with a personality as big as North America itself in the play, and the real Richard Henry Lee was no doubt a good guy. However, he is so much more than a caricature. Here is the story of the real Richard Henry Lee, and his importance to the American Revolution.
Richard Henry Lee (January 20, 1732 – June 19, 1794) was the son of Colonel Thomas Lee and Hannah Harrison Ludwell, members of the influential Lee family of the colony of Virginia. His immediate ancestors were all military officers, legislators, and diplomats, and the family had plenty of money to live comfortably by 18th century standards (and even by standards in some places in the world today). Lee’s father was the governor of Virginia for a time. And, Lee himself was schooled by the finest private tutors. As a young adolescent, his father sent Richard around to visit all of the neighboring farmers and plantation owners of prominence, because he wanted his son to become acquainted with these influential, well-connected men at a young age, so they would know and respect him as an adult, when those connections would be important for Richard’s advancement in society.
When he was sixteen, Richard Henry Lee sailed to Yorkshire, England, where he attended the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Grammar School to complete his formal education. After that, he toured Europe, as many wealthy young American men, and even women did at that time in the years between finishing school and getting married. The European tour was a standard right of passage for Americans of Lee’s economic class in all the colonies, not just Virginia.
Richard had to come home a bit earlier than planned, however, when both of his parents died unexpectedly in 1750. His presence was required to help his brothers settle their parents’ estate. He returned to America to do this in 1753, the slowness and unreliability of mail at this time and the lengthy ocean voyages to go from continent to continent delaying his arrival. He probably didn’t know his parents were dead until long after the fact, when a letter from a brother or some other relative finally reached him wherever he was in Europe on his travels.
Upon his return to Virginia, Richard Henry Lee began a career in politics, as his father had groomed him for, becoming a justice of the peace in Westmoreland County in 1757. He was elected to the House of Burgesses in Virginia in 1758, where he met future fellow revolutionary, Patrick Henry. While in the House of Burgesses, Richard Henry Lee proved himself to be both one of the earliest advocates of American independence, but also one of the most outspoken opponents of slavery of his day. His first bill as a Burgess, written in 1759, stated that Virginia should:
“lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia.”
He also wrote that “Africans are equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature.” This bill has been described by historians as the strongest anti-slavery sentiment made in written form before the 1800s.
Richard, along with his brothers, rallied the people of Westmoreland County in 1765 against the British Stamp Act and promised “danger and disgrace” to anyone who paid it. This promise was made in the Westmoreland Resolve, which Richard, his brothers, Thomas Lightfoot, and four of George Washington’s brothers all signed (among other influential county residents), and is considered the first real act of open sedition against the British Crown. It put Virginia firmly in the center of the coming revolution, along with equally revolutionary Massachusetts.
Richard was instrumental in making the exchange of information about the King, Parliament, and their activities flow more quickly and easily between all of the colonies. He did this by forming the Committees of Correspondence, which became a uniting force among all colonies in desiring independence from Britain. Two of Lee’s brothers were stationed in London to receive this information, which they passed as immediately as possible in the 18th century on to Lee, who got it out to the rest of the colonies through the Committees. As such, he became the communications coordinator for the colonies.
However, it was Lee’s role in the Continental Congress that had the most impact on the American independence cause. Were it not for him, the American Revolution might not have even happened. There was certainly resistance to the idea among some of the Congressional delegates, who wanted to make peace with Britain and remain part of the Crown’s empire. He was chosen as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, and two years later, on June 7, 1776, it was Richard Henry Lee who formally put forth the motion to the Congress that the colonies ought to be free, and that an official declaration as such needed to be made to make a statement to the king and Parliament.
Without Lee’s motion, Thomas Jefferson might never have written the Declaration of Independence, and America might be part of Britain to this day. Lee’s motion put everything else that lead to American independence into motion.
Lee was married twice and had a total of fourteen children between both wives, nine of whom survived to adulthood. He became the sixth president of the new United States under the Articles of Confederation, which was the governing document of the nation before the Constitution was written (George Washington was the first president under the Constitution). While the Articles of Confederation were a general failure at organizing our nation, Lee did manage to establish the same land surveying system we use today during his time as president under the Articles.
While Richard Henry Lee may not be remembered well by history, his importance in the American Revolution cannot be overstated. Without him, there might have been no revolution at all.